One feature of America’s fearful political culture

Glenn Greenwald wrote the following this morning:
There has been much talk over the last several days, in the wake of the Arizona shooting, about attempts by some citizens to instill physical fear in elected officials. That's a worthwhile and necessary topic, but the fear that government officials are attempting to instill in law-abiding, dissenting citizens is far more substantial and sustained, and deserves much more attention than it has received.
He wrote this paragraph while concluding another one of his long, lucid and well-argued essays on the WikiLeaks saga. When I broadly consider his position, I believe he was right to take it. After all, there can be no doubt that America's political-legal assault on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange wants to intimidate whistleblowers like Bradley Manning, citizen journalist like those found at WikiLeaks along with those citizens who would protest and thereby reform the use of government power in the United States. Nor can anyone doubt that such intimidation has been achieved to some degree. Why would willingly desire to be tortured as Bradley Manning has been since his incarceration?

Nevertheless, unlike Greenwald, if I have accurately interpreted his essay, I do not believe that a state induced fear and a socially induced fear are wholly distinct. Nor do I believe that popular reactionary violence and the threat of such have taken aim only at America's elected officials, especially those officials who are members of the Democratic Party. It is not even clear to me that one practice is more important than the other. Fear, like radiation, has a scope that is far greater than its direct target. It is both immediately devastating for those targeted and broadly instructive for those who witness a fear-inducing attack. It often attaches a stigma to its targets and it enforces the sense that keeping one's head low means that someone cannot take it off at the neck.

The Tucson bloodbath this past weekend has had the noticeable effect of drawing attention to the use of fear in politics in the United States today. This fear, as stated above, is meant to eliminate political opponents while cowling others into silence. It is a political act and has political consequences.

The Tucson attack also has achieved more than pointing to the use of fear as a political tool in the United States. It has also focused attention on the work of one American political movement, with its famous and not-so-famous leaders, a reactionary political movement that wants to intimidate different political movements, organizations, parties and institutions. The violence-laden rhetoric, the symbols and tools of violence used by this movement, the attacks it mounts on human diversity — these practices achieve an end similar to the ends pursued by the government when it seeks to intimidate those who threaten it, namely, the suppression of what remains of liberalism in the United States, of a political commitment to a full set of rights and of a strong democracy emboldened to contest a strong government. I also believe it is clear that this reactionary movement provides the squadristi and Sturmabteilung for that faction of the Republican Party that has absolutist pretentions and that actually believes it expresses the essence of an authentically American life. Like the surveillance and security practices of the federal government, the violence prone reactionaries function as an agent that constrains political speech and action in the United States.

Since the reactionaries have more than a foot in American government, including the military, it is not too farfetched to identify the reactionaries as the sometimes extra-legal agent of a terror that, all things being equal, affirms governmental power! It surely affirms the security and surveillance apparatus, which must now protect good apolitical Americans from the extremists. It also affirms bipartisan government, a kind of American political compromise that actively suppresses political conflict, especially conflict that originates within civil society. When thought of in this way, governmental surveillance and security work complements actual and potential political terror produced by America's reactionaries, and vice versa. Both produce depoliticizing effects.

The proof of this is ready at hand. The United States currently lacks an opposition party and has not recently produced an effective opposition movement that can contest the policies and practices of the American political system. This absence is not due to luck, to America's well-designed institutions or to the well-being enjoyed by most Americans. It is an effect of long-term political work by America's government system, including its legacy parties and the duopoly they compose, and by the reactionary popular forces originating within civil society.

Although the Tucson shootings have caused some of America's political elite to take a step back with respect to their use of inflammatory talk, I could not help but to agree with Alexander Cockburn's assessment of America's near-term political future: "I doubt [America's] rhetoric will stay subdued for long." It appears that there can be only one American politics, and it is vain, militaristic, violent and narrow.

This essay was cross-posted at OpenSalon and FireDogLake


Anonymous said...

I found Cockburn's piece actually somewhat rambling, untidy and without focus. The major thrust seemed to be that second amendment rights to carry are bonkers, which they are. That the Palin cohort on the right is bonkers, also true. That 1/12 americans are nuts; yup.

Unfortunately, he missed Gifford's photo op image of her handling a freakin' M16, which is too bad, as that might have delivered an all together different, and more withering critique of America's Kafkaesque reality.

Anyway, Zielinski makes more sense than Szielinski, and being a Polak, I can say that with authority.

There's a dialog I feel worth while starting, one which Alexander Cockburn has already done, in a limited fashion, between the radical left and some segments of the libertarian right, which he sees as our 'difficult' cousins.

Unfortunately FDL, would let the hounds lose, and dilog would likely devolve into self righteous bashing. Been there, done that. I'll be visiting henceforth.


Stephen Zielinski said...

Thanks for replying. I agree that Cockburn's article wasn't one of his better ones. I suspect that he, like many of us, waited for the last year or so for an event like this to happen. It was a momentous event; it was also an event that had obvious causes.

That Gifford was a Blue Dog, a gun-friendly Democrat and the spouse of an astronaut makes the assassination attempt that much more surreal than not. The post-war era right always took the center-right as one of its first targets. Calling a center-right President like Obama a leftist is, in fact, part of that tradition.

I agree about a more open politics than we've seen for a while. Eventually, individuals of many political kinds will need to bury their differences in order to challenge the right in the United States.

Thanks again.